An Evaluation of Criticism on Eudora Welty’s “A Worn Path” Delta State University student, Susan Allen Ford, wrote a poem and entitled it “Chiromancy”. Chiromancy is defined as the prediction of a person’s future from the lines on the palms of his or her hands. Her poem expresses this journey of an African American woman in the Alabama March of 1965, but what intrigued me the most were the last few lines of the last stanza: It plunges fearless into hot water, Gently crumbles clumps of soil from pot-bound roots.
With its own knowledge it curves into a caress
At this point in the poem, Ford parallels the curves and shifting directions of the path to the curves and lines of the palm. This is significant because it is as if the path determines the outcome of the journey.
This student’s poem shows how vital and significant the journey itself really is to the person on the path. Eudora Welty’s short story, “A Worn Path”, is a narrative that shows the vitality of the journey. In the story, Phoenix Jackson, an old Negro woman travels down an old, country path to go to into town, Natchez, Mississippi.
The reason why she makes this difficult journey routinely is to obtain medicine for her grandson with lye poisoning. While on this particular day, Phoenix has some unusual encounters and distractions. Phoenix envisions a mirage of a young child offering her marble cake while she takes a rest in the middle of her walk. Then, Phoenix is almost attacked by dogs, and she falls into a ditch on her back. A young, white hunter comes to her rescue, scares away the dogs, and helps Phoenix back to her feet.
While in conversation, the hunter tries to convince Phoenix to turn around and go home because this journey is unreasonable and too difficult. Even this does not deter Phoenix’s determination to go to town. Once in town, she finds the nurse in the clinic to be very rude and determines Phoenix as “a charity case. ” After retrieving her medicine and a monetary donation, she leaves to go buy her grandson a paper windmill. This story is very short and also vague. At first read, there is not much epth, but while researching critiques on this narrative, I found that it is much more complex then it originally appears. The journey that Phoenix Jackson endures can be interpreted into so many different symbolic purposes. One critic looked at the journey as a representation of the prediction of the civil rights’ movement, while another critic saw the journey as a Christian’s journey. While there are many interpretations, what is interesting is that almost every critique uses the exact same text to prove their argument.
I chose to focus on critiques by Jim Owens, Roland Bartel, Neil D. Isaacs, Greg Barnhisel and Dennis J. Sykes, strictly because these critics used the exact textual evidence, but interpreted different evaluations entirely. I would like to present and critique the different interpretations, and show how even the same text can conjure completely different emotion and relativity. I also include Eudora Welty’s own words on why she wrote “A Worn Path” and then I argue my own interpretation of Phoenix’s journey and what I deem significant or interesting.
A Mythological Approach Critic, Jim Owen, in his journal, The Southern Literary Journal, analyzes the mythological approach to “A Worn Path”. Owens believes that Phoenix’s “race, her gender, her age, her oddity, her frailty, her poverty, her illiteracy all work against her in the segregated patriarchal world of the old deep South, yet she manages alone repeatedly to travel a path fraught with obstacles” (Owens 29). Owens does not only believe that Phoenix Jackson’s journey is symbolic of her triumph over all her setbacks, but it also hyphened with mythical allusions.
Just the simple fact that Phoenix was on a journey alone conjures the idea because “travel is naturally vital to both the genres of epic and romance, and by thus paralleling [Welty’s] travelers’ journeys with the mythic and literary journeys of the travelers who trod their worn paths before hers, Welty seems to emulate her modernist contemporaries and precursors” (35). Owens interprets Phoenix’s fall into the ditch as a metaphorical tumble into the underworld—just like Homer. He also believes that the crossing over the swamp of alligators could be rendered as the dark River of Styx.
Owens’s biggest parallel is explaining that the “black dog with a lolling tongue” as a type of Cerberus. Cerberus, in mythology, is depicted as having three heads that can symbolize birth, youth, and old age. Cerberus was used a sort of watch dog for Hades that guarded the gates of the underworld. While the dog did not have three heads, the fact that Phoenix falls down into a ditch, could possibly symbolize her unknowingly tumble into the underworld. Luckily, Owens argues would argue, Phoenix is saved from her decent into hell by a “Polyphemus-like young man”—the young, white hunter (36).
He states that this is when Phoenix’s intelligence and wit comes into play. She cleverly distracts the hunter by challenging the idea that his dog does not phase the “epic dog” and the hunter then sends his dog to attack. All while this is happening; Phoenix steals a nickel that the hunter had dropped onto the ground. Owens believes this crucial incident shows “Welty’s reworking of myth, both in her combined allusions to Ulysses’ trip to the underworld and to his imprisonment by the Cyclops, and in her granting the epic hero’s famed cleverness to her modern protagonist” (Owens 40).
Both Ulysses and Phoenix use their cleverness to escape from danger. After finally arriving to the clinic, Phoenix has momentary memory loss of why she had made the journey in the first place. Some critics argue that her memory loss leads to the idea that her grandson is in fact, dead. Owens does not believe this is so. Owens wants the reader to recall how Phoenix felt after she fell into the ditch (or her decent into hell): Phoenix’s “senses [had] drifted away” (281). Owens argues that this memory loss is simply Phoenix experiencing psychological destabilization after “stepping in and out of [her] mythic roles”(41).
Just like Phoenix had to shift from an old, fragile women into the clever Ulysses, she also had to transform back into “just old Aunt Phoenix” for the nurses (286). After recollecting why she was there, the reader follows “her slow step on the stairs, ‘going down’ (289), we recognize that her iliad implies an odyssey; they way home will be all the more difficult, despite her endurance . . . Yet her epic stature and her sense of purpose will doubtless carry her back to the child who awaits her and ‘the soothing medicine’” (Owens 41).
Roland Bartel, another English literature critic at the University of Oregon, agrees with Jim Owens in interpreting “A Worn Path” with mythological symbolism. Bartel looks into the name of the protagonist—Phoenix. In mythology, a phoenix is a bird that can live up to 500 years. When it is about to die, it sets up a nest of twigs and it ignites and burns to ashes. From those ashes, a new phoenix egg is produced. A phoenix can symbolize longevity, rebirth, or immortality. Bartel argues that her name “seems to suggest by its brevity that all she has left in life is her name and all it implies”(288).
Bartel also points an aspect of the story that Owens missed, and that is the significance of Phoenix’s cane. Bartel believes that Welty is paralleling Phoenix’s cane with the old man in Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale. In Pardoner’s Tale, the old man “taps the earth with his cane seeking death”(289). Before Phoenix even begins her journey to Natchez, she “carried a thin, small cane made from an umbrella, and with this she kept tapping the frozen earth in front of her” (275). Then before she walks down the steps of the clinic, “she [gives] a tap with her cane on the floor [and says] ‘This is what come to me to do’ “ (289).
Bartel argues that like the old man in Pardoner’s Tale, Phoenix taps her cane seeking her own death, or the death of her grandson. At the end of the story, Bartel explains, “The impression prevails that she has risen from the ashes from the last time”(289). A Christian Approach Although Jim Owens and Roland Bartel both have amazing arguments, critic Neil D. Isaac would argue that Phoenix’s journey represents something different entirely. Isaac argues that Phoenix’s journey embodies a journey of Christianity.
Isaac believes that “the whole meaning of ‘A Worn Path’ will rely on an immediate recognition of the equation—the worn path equals the path of life”(Isaac 37) . Isaac argues that an important aspect of the story is the element of time in the setting—which is Christmas. Besides the blatantly obvious line like “it’s Christmas time”, Isaac believes that “there proliferates around the pattern throughout the story a dense cluster of allusions to and suggestions of the Christmas myth at large and the meanings of Christmas in particular” (37).
For example, when Phoenix is resting at the beginning of her journey, she sees a “little boy [who] brought her a plate with a slice of marble-cake on it,” and Phoenix replies, “That would be acceptable. ” (278). Isaac argues that this is an allusion to Communion and Church ritual. Communion in the Christian church is when the church congregation goes through a ceremonial meal in remembrance of Christ. The church eats bread to symbolize the flesh of Christ and drinks red wine, or cranberry juice, to symbolize the blood shed of Christ’s death.
So when the child offers this bread-like food and Phoenix “accepts “ his offering, Isaac believes this is the allusion of Phoenix recognizing Jesus Christ. Ironically, after the illusion of the child disappears, a bird flies overhead and Phoenix replies, “ God watching me the whole time” (283). There are references to the Garden of Eden when Phoenix says, “and the good Lord made his snakes to curl up and sleep in the winter” (279). Also, Isaac believes that when “Phoenix walks through the field of corn” it symbolizes the parting of the Red Sea (280).
While some critics look at the distractions on the journey as just obstacles, Isaac believes that these are representations of temptations—“when Phoenix gets to the river, sees the city shining, and hears the bells ringing; then there is an angel who waits on her, tying her shoes” (Isaac 38). Isaac argues that Phoenix’s grandson represents the infant-Christ figure because she describes him as “all wrapped up [in] a little patch quilt . . . like a little bird [with] a sweet look” (288). Phoenix could represent a devout Christian follower making her way through life in honor of her Savior.
On the other hand, Isaac argues that this journey could also represent “the return trip will be like a Magi, with Phoenix following a star (the marvelous windmill) to bring a gift to the dying child (medicine, also windmill)”(Isaac 39). In addition to the allusions towards Christianity, the story also eludes to the ideals of Christmas—giving, doing for others, charity. Phoenix makes the journey selflessly for her grandson, the hunter goes out of his way to help Phoenix when she falls, and the nurses donate the medicine for poor, old Aunt Phoenix.
Along with Owens and Bartel, Isaac also believes that this is story about a path of life and death. Rather than their mythological approach, Isaac argues that is more of a Christian allusion. In Christian, Christ is born at the death of the year—December. He is brought to Earth to die in order that everyone can be saved. Issac proceeds to explain that “[Christ] is reborn out of death, and so are nature, love, and spirit of man. All this is the potent Christian explanation of the central irony of human existence, that life means death and death is life” (Isaac 41).
Isaac argues that is where the significance of her name, Phoenix, comes into play. Out of the death of the phoenix comes new life—just like the death of Christ. Isaac’s final closing statement is that “life is a journey toward death, because one must die in order that life may go on” (42). A Civil Rights Approach Even though both Owens and Isaac argue two different critical approaches to “A Worn Path”, both have similar outcomes—death. Ironically, a more positive ending can be determined from another interpretation—the civil rights’ movement.
Greg Barnhisel, an English literature scholar, educator, and writer, argues that race and the presence of civil rights do play a huge role in “A Worn Path”. Barnhisel believes that race is so prevalent in Welty’s stories because she grew up in a Mississippi town where the Civil War and Reconstruction were still remembered by many of her neighbors. Although all these political aspects influenced her, “her stories deal with race relations on a personal level”—like Phoenix Jackson (Barnhisel 345). Barnhisel questions, “Whether Phoenix Jackson is intended to stand as a representative of her race” (Barnhisel 345).
Certainly, Welty can symbolize the stereotypical Southern image of blacks, but “Welty seems to undercut this image by introducing the hunter, who treats Jackson as precisely that kind of stereotype” (Barnhisel 346). This can be seen when the hunter exclaims, “I know you old colored people . . . Wouldn’t miss going to town to see Santa Claus” (282). Barnhisel really examines what this could possibly mean. He states that some critics would argue that this indicates “pejorative stereotypes of blacks (craftiness and dishonesty)” but he is concerned if it is “a comical representation of black helplessness? ” (Barnhisel 346).
There is definitely a tradition present of white Southern writers exalting the primitiveness of blacks; Barnhisel would argue. He believes that this is not necessarily racist, but rather as a technique to teach more ‘’sophisticated’’ whites about the virtues of simplicity. So Barnhisel wrestles over whether she is granting blacks sufficient human diversity, or whether, she treats them too much as simple symbols of endurance. Along with Barnhisel, Dennis J, Sykes, a literature critic at Quincy College, agrees “Phoenix Jackson witnesses the Southern black’s transformation from slave to citizen”(Sykes 151).
Black equality and amalgamation in the South after the Civil War are two major themes that Sykes deems important. Sykes feels that a “parallel exists between the journey described and the plight of the Southern blacks after the Civil War” (Sykes 151). He continues to use this analogy when he describes Phoenix enduring “an endless struggle, if not against hogs, then against the thorny bush that ‘never want to let folks pass’ “ (277). A very obvious use of imagery is displayed when Phoenix notes that it “seems like there is chains on my feet, time I get this far” (276).
This is obviously symbolizing slavery and being confined in chains. Sykes biggest argument is the Phoenix’s illusion of the child offering the marble cake. Marble cake is a black and white cake that in swirled together. Sykes believes that this is to be seen as “a reference to the idea of integration in the South. But ‘when she went to take it there was just her own hand in the air’ “ (Sykes 151). So if the marble cake is to symbolize integration and it disappeared before Phoenix could obtain it, then the reader could infer that integration is an almost unobtainable dream.
Even though Phoenix is somewhat phased by this mirage, she continues her journey. While Sykes chooses not to address the encounter with the white hunter immediately, he does suggest the significance of the document in the medical clinic. While gazing at the wall, Phoenix notices “the document that had been stamped with the gold seal and framed in the gold frame, when matched the dream that was hung up in her head” (285). Sykes believes that this document could symbolize completion—the completion of the long, hard journey of equality.
With her use of the word “dream”, the reader can conjure up the notion that this is something that is very important to Phoenix—to complete this journey for the sake of her grandson’s future. Once Sykes establishes Phoenix’s optimism, he then wants to reveal how Welty represents the attitudes of whites in the South after the war. Sykes notes that Phoenix’s first encounter “is with a hunter who, after running of a black dog, remarks, ‘Well I scared him off that time” (283).
After scaring and running of the black dog, the hunter then tries to intimidate Phoenix with his gun, but Phoenix shows her dignity by responding “No, Sir, I seen plenty go off closer by, in my day” (283). His attempt to instill fear in Phoenix has failed because by now she has become numb to this sort of behavior. Then the hunter gives Phoenix advice as they part: “But you take my advice and stay home, and nothing will happen to you” (283-284). Sykes argues, “the incident with the hunter symbolizes the resiliency of the black movement toward equality” from the white person’s perspective (Sykes 252).
Ironically, Barnhisel does not mention the white, rude nurses at the clinic, while Sykes does seem this encounter as relevant. Before Phoenix has even had a chance to speak, the nurse behind the desk exclaims, “A charity case, I suppose” (285). This immediate judgment placed on Phoenix is just an example of what the white people of the South felt about the black people after the war. I did promise that the racial critic ended on a more optimistic note then that of mythology or Christianity and that is because of Phoenix’s love for her grandson.
Sykes states that her “adoration of her grandson are the final words Phoenix speaks to another character in the book, a parting premonition that the struggle is going to last”, but it does not mean that it will not end (Sykes 252). All the conflicts that Phoenix has had to deal with are for the sake of her grandson’s future of equality, and those conflicts are strictly “obstacles in the path”. Eudora Welty’s Own Words While all five critics have made very valid arguments, the reader will always wonder what Eudora Welty really meant when writing “A Worn Path”.
In one of her own critical journals, Welty explains her reasoning for writing this story and what is its significance. The inspiration for Phoenix Jackson was an ancient black woman whom she saw walking across the countryside while she was sitting under a tree near the Natchez Trace. “I watched her cross that landscape in the half-distance”, she explains, “and when I got home I wrote that story that she had made me think of. ” In another interview, Welty adds that she “knew [the woman] was going somewhere. I knew she was bent on an errand, even at that distance. It was not anything casual.
It was a purposeful, measured journey she was making—you wouldn’t go on an errand like that—unless it were for someone else, you know. Unless it were an emergency. ” Even though Welty wrote this story because she was simply inspired by this individual, she still welcomes the idea that each reader is free to interpret her story, as he or she likes. Welty explains that ambiguity is a part of life, “but it is not alright, not in good faith, for things not to mean what they say. ” Welty likes to leave her story up to interpretation, but that does not mean that she did not have a message, or a purpose, while writing “A Worn Path”.
Although the story embraces uncertainty of the journey, Welty did hope that one idea became clear—“the whole surround of this story, the world it threads through, the only certain thing at all is the worn path. ” A Story of the Journey of Life Since Eudora Welty conveniently leaves her story up for interpretation, any of these critics could be considered a correct evaluation. Although they all make very strong arguments, I do not believe that any of these three critiques is more correct than then others. I do not feel that Welty wanted a person to read the short story and leave with a singular message.
That is not the point of literature. When reading Welty’s quote about her one idea that she wanted to be clear, she obviously is more focused on the path itself. She is not concerned with whether Welty represents the African American race as a whole, Christ, or a mythical epic hero. She is more fascinated with the path—the journey. In my opinion, Eudora Welty wrote this story to represent the journey of life. Not necessarily the journey of the life of an epic hero or Christ, but each individual in the world—the human race. In the very beginning on the story, Phoenix says, “Out of my way . . I got a long way” (276). Every person will deal with obstacles in their life, and we know that they are out there. This awareness of hard journey ahead is instilled in our brains from a very young age. Then Phoenix states, “Seem like there is chains about my feet, time I get this far” (276). Every person in his or her life with endure hardships; something that will set them back. These chains on the feet can easily be interpreted into a symbolism of slavery, but in my opinion, they just symbolize setbacks. These chains can hold a person back, but there is always a key to unlock them.
Then, Phoenix comes upon the thorns. She says to the thorns that they are doing their appointed job because they “never want to let folks pass, no sir” (277). These thorns can represent the people in anyone’s life that try to keep an individual from pursuing their dreams. These “thorns” are meant to keep people back and not allow them to pass through. It can also go along with the cliche, “He is a thorn in my side. ” These people that are constantly attached to a person, then they become a distraction and therefore, hold someone back from pursuing their dreams.
Ironically though, in the middle of Phoenix’s journey she comes upon a maze of corn where “there was no path” (279). Even though people are on this path (this journey) though life, it can always change. There is no set path that will lead everyone through. Sometimes a path will not be laid out before someone’s feet, but they have to create their own—just like Phoenix. After the hardest part of her journey, she comes to the flat, easy terrain. Not all of life is difficult and strenuous. Phoenix even tells her self to “walk pretty” (280).
She realizes she needs to relax and enjoy this easy part because they do not come too often. When Phoenix encounters the hunter, he symbolizes intimidation. He is trying to make Phoenix feel uncomfortable and subservient. In the journey of life, there will always be people that feel they are better or more important. The intimidation factor will always be there. The hunter even gives the advice that if Phoenix “stay[s] home, nothing will happen to [her]” (284). Just like the “thorns”, the hunter represents another warning to keep Phoenix back from continuing her journey.
If the reader follows suit of Phoenix, they will realize that the only way to obtain any dream is to leave their safe haven (home) and continue forward. Once Phoenix finally reaches the doctor’s office, she sees the “document that had been stamped with the gold seal and framed in the gold frame, which matched the dream that was hung up in her head” (285). This document has been interpreted many different ways, but I believe it symbolizes accomplishment. Realistically, this document is the completion for the doctor’s certification. This was the goal that the doctor had worked so hard for—this was the completion of his journey.
This document also holds significance for Phoenix as well. This document is what she sees every time she reaches the end of her journey. This is her sign that she finally made it. This is a symbol of the goal she set out for herself. Phoenix even states, “Here I be,” and the text says “there was a fixed ceremonial stiffness over her body” (285). The statement, “here I be”, have a sense of completeness—almost matter-of-factly. Of course, though, as soon as Phoenix takes a moment to reminisce of her accomplishment, reality has to sit in.
The woman from behind the counter whispers that Phoenix must be “a charity case” (285). Just like the hunter and the thorns, this woman is another obstacle. She represents the people that are judgmental. Before Phoenix even speaks a word, this woman has her summed up. In the journey of life, there will be people who are going to judge and discriminate. This woman represents every person that could speak condescending words to a human being. How Welty feels a person should deal with this kind of behavior is shown in Phoenix’s response, which is complete silence.
Instead responding in an over-apologetic or over-cautious manner, Phoenix chooses not to respond at all. There will always be people who behave like this. It is unavoidable, but the best way to rise above this behavior is ignore it, just like Phoenix. After a long drilling from the nurse, Phoenix responds with “There I sat and forgot why I made my long trip” (287). After all the hardships, obstacles, and trials, Phoenix actually forgot why she had made the long journey. This could symbolize losing sight of what is important in life.
A person can go through all the motions, but forget why they are doing the motions. Just like Phoenix, sometimes a person can forget and it takes something to spark their memory or ignite their desire. At the very end of the story, Phoenix retrieves the medicine makes her way back home. Phoenix’s “slow step began on the stairs, going down” and she continues back home (289). Now that Phoenix has completed this journey, she must start a new one—just like in life. Welty says herself that it is not the people, the subject, or the surroundings that make the story significant, but it is the path that is most important.
So the mythological reader, Christian reader, or Civil Rights reader could all interpret this story differently, and that is what Eudora Welty wanted. She wanted each reader to take something different from this story and apply it to his or her life. Along with this individual interpretation, it also unveils how similar each human can be. Each person has a path, or journey, that they must take. Each person is going to face obstacles in their way. Each person is going to experience self-doubt, pain, happiness, and judgment, but each person is going to experience some form of accomplishment when they reach the end of their path.
Eudora Welty shows one person’s path, but she wants to show that it is each person’s choice to determine his or her own path. With each path comes an ending, but a new journey will then soon begin, but it is the journey that is important. In Robert Frost’s famous poem, The Road Not Taken, the speaker says that he “took the one less traveled by/ and that has made all the difference”. Works Cited Barnhisel, Greg. “Implications of Race”, Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997. Bartel, Roland. “Life and Death in Eudora Welty’s “A Worn Path”, in Studies in Short Fiction, October, 1980, pp. 88-290. Isaacs, Neil D. “Life for Phoenix,” in The Critical Response to Eudora Welty’s Fiction, edited by Laura Champion, Greenwood Press, 1994, pp. 37? 42. Owens, Jim. The Southern Literary Journal 34. 1 2001, pp. 29-43. Sykes, Dennis J. “Welty’s The Worn Path” in Studies in Short Fiction, October 1980, pp. 151-152. Welty, Eudora. “Is Phoenix Jackson’s Grandson Really Dead? ,” in Critical Inquiry, Vol 1, No. 1, September, 1974, pp. 219? 21. Welty, Eudora. The Eye of the Story: Selected Essays and Reviews. New York: Random, 1977.
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